Wi-Fi Coming to NYC Commuter Trains

Published November 1, 2009

More than a dozen Internet service providers are vying to provide wi-fi service on Metro North train lines providing service between New York City and upstate suburbs, Connecticut, and the Long Island Railroad.

Metro North is one of the busiest rail lines in the nation and serves some of the country’s most affluent citizens.

Cablevision, Verizon, AT&T, Sprint Nextel, and several other firms submitted bids in July to provide the service. Cablevision, the tri-state area’s largest cable provider, launched a wi-fi network a year ago that’s already available at roughly 96 percent of metro-area commuter rail platforms and station parking lots.

The company’s bid notes it would cover all the costs for constructing and operating the wi-fi network and make the service available for free to its customers. Other commuters could log on for a fee.

Taxpayers Not on Hook

Sascha Meinrath, a telecommunications analyst at the New America Foundation in Washington, DC, notes the private sector is providing wi-fi service on Metro North trains without any taxpayer money going toward the project.

“I’m quite excited about the notion of having wireless on Metro North,” Meinrath said. “I used to ride that line all the time. And I would love to see a business model whereby free wireless becomes normative on trains along this corridor. Certainly, the benefits to the thousands of regular riders would be substantial.”

Train riders in the New York City area represent a rich market. Dana Spiegel, editor of NYCWireless.net, notes 90 percent of Metro North riders have broadband service at home. Forty-two percent of those commuters have mobile Internet access on cell phones and PDAs.

Market Moves In

Dr. Anthony Townsend, research director at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, California, says businesses are competing to install wi-fi access on Metro North trains because it now appears likely to be a profitable area.

“What it looks like is [the free market] ignored wi-fi for years on Metro North trains,” Townsend said. [Providers] are only now paying attention because it might be a potential revenue source.”

Meinrath says he thinks if the winning bidder doesn’t make money on the deal, the service will likely be shut down because taxpayers have increasingly shown an unwillingness to spend money to subsidize wi-fi Internet access.

Thomas Cheplick ([email protected]) writes from Cambridge, Massachusetts.